An unusual immigration drama unfolded Wednesday, as 45 people identifying themselves as Iraqi Christians crossed the Mexican border at San Ysidro and turned themselves in to U.S. immigration officials in an apparent bid for political asylum. Meanwhile, a larger group of would-be immigrants was held by Mexican authorities in a Tijuana hotel.
Officials of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service said the detainees identified themselves as Chaldean. Over the years members of the Christian minority group have fled predominantly Muslim Iraq, citing religious oppression. Many have settled in San Diego County, now home to the largest Chaldean community in the United States outside Detroit.
INS officials in San Diego said they planned to question the group's members but were awaiting the arrival of Arabic translators. In the meantime, an INS spokeswoman said officials had not yet determined what members of the group are seeking. The INS does not, as a policy, comment on asylum bids, citing confidentiality laws.
It was not clear Wednesday why the Iraqis chose to enter the United States from Tijuana. Although the Tijuana border region often serves as a channel for immigrants from outside Mexico and Latin America, such mass crossings are rare--particularly by Iraqis.
"We'll see one, maybe two, usually single males," said Bob Montgomery, deputy director of the San Diego-based International Rescue Committee, a refugee aid group. "Not families."
Authorities said the 45 straggled across the border on foot in small family groups throughout the day Wednesday. There were 19 children among them.
After the border crossings began, Mexican authorities detained a larger group of Iraqis, as many as 150, at the Tijuana hotel where some had been staying several months. Members of this group were planning to hand themselves over at the U.S. border station in San Ysidro in an asylum bid, according to a relative of one of the families at the hotel.
"There is nothing over [in Iraq]--no food, medicine," said Romil Gewardes, an Iraqi American visiting his sister-in-law and family, who have stayed at the hotel for six weeks. "If you don't send money to your family, everybody starve."
The detainees hung banners from windows of the Tijuana hotel Wednesday reading, in English, "We Want Our Human Rights" and "We Are Homeless and Need Protection." Some said they have discussed their bid for asylum with U.S. immigration officials in Tijuana and had even shown up at the border crossing seeking visas.
Ferial Shamma, a San Diego County woman who had translated for some of those at the Tijuana hotel, said she had escorted some of the would-be immigrants to interviews with INS officials at the port of entry in hopes of gaining temporary visas.
Mary Ann Freeman, an INS spokeswoman in Laguna Niguel, said that those accounts might be true but that she did not know whether the Iraqis in Tijuana had sought asylum by showing up at the port of entry or contacting officials at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana.
United States and Mexican immigration officials were working together Wednesday to sort out the latest border saga.
"Our intent is to work with the Mexican authorities on behalf of these people," Freeman said.
Asylum seekers typically apply from a third country or simply appear on U.S. soil, where they can be detained until their cases are heard.
The Iraqis arrived in Tijuana by varying routes, according to those at the hotel. Several of the detainees said they had arrived by way of Mexico City after passing through Europe. Some said they had unsuccessfully sought asylum at U.S. embassies in Greece and Turkey.
"We are afraid maybe they will send us back to Iraq. We are looking for peace. We are looking for help," said a man who identified himself only as a former soldier.
One of the immigrants, Zaid Yousif, 17, said he sneaked out of Iraq in May with his parents and hoped for asylum. "It's my dream to live in the United States. All my life is worry, worry," he said in English.
Mexican authorities planned to allow the families to remain at the hotel until they could sort out what to do with them.
Since they arrived in Tijuana, the detainees have attracted help from church officials and members of San Diego's Chaldean community. Noori Barka, an official at St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Church, said church members have visited the Iraqis in Tijuana for months as they pursued asylum. A San Diego-based attorney for one of the families said the detainees faced death if returned to Iraq.
There also were about two dozen Guatemalans and Salvadorans among the group at the hotel.
Baja California has long been a transit point for migrants from China and other points in Asia seeking passage across the U.S. border.
Times correspondent Jody Hammond and staff writer Tony Perry contributed to this story.